Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Language of Confusion 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold

And if you don’t get the reference, you don’t watch enough old comedies.

Anyway! How about we look up some more double meaning words? Today: right, right and right. As in, you are right, you have the right to turn right whenever you want. Obviously, no one ever mistakes the Bill of Rights as a law about right-hand turns. But how can three words that mean mutually exclusive things all be spelled and sound the exact same way?

Ah, English. I’d say it’s the most confusing language, but I took German. Do you know how many words they have for the? A lot.

First, let’s look at the right that means correct, proper. It comes from the Old English riht, which itself came from rekhtaz, a word from Old English’s ancestor Proto-German meaning good, fair, proper. There are several other relatives including the Old High German (prevalent around the sixth to eleventh centuries) reht, and from that the German recht, the Old Norse (the language the Viking invaders to England spoke in the Middle Ages) word rettr, and the Gothic (around 1000 CE) word raihts. All the words stem from that rekhtaz. But whence rekhtaz?

Its parent is the Proto-Indo-European (which is from a long time ago, as in 4000 BCE) reg-, to regulate, make just, or reign. That word has more cousins (in that they’re all descended from the same word) in the Greek orektos (stretched out, upright) and Latin rectus (straight, right). Really, almost every European (and even Old Persian as well) word for right descends from this reg.

Now let’s look at the right defined as “the opposite of left.” I don’t know how many of you have heard of this, but about fifty years ago, when my parents were in school, there was no such thing as “left handed.” Children who favored their left hand were punished and forced to use their right, which I bet resulted in a lot of messy handwriting.

For some reason, there was a lot of stigmata associated with left-handedness. That is also the reason the word right -> has a similar history to the proper-and-correct right. In around the twelfth century, the opposite of left started to be called riht in Old English, the good, fair and proper word.

Man, people did not like lefties. Many of Old English’s Proto-Indo-European cousins also associated the right hand with the word right (the French word, droit, comes from Latin directus—straight). Except, interestingly enough, the actual Proto-Indo-European word for that side is dek and from that, the Latin dexter (think of dexterity, not straight and proper).

As for having rights, that most likely comes from Old Irish recht, which also stems from the straight, rule, put right reg. However, the Old Irish were the first to use it to mean law, so they get the credit for that invention.

In the end, I guess you would have to say all three rights do have something in common: they come from a word for making something straight and good (although I obviously don’t think lefties are bad and think the whole idea that they aren’t good is ludicrous). But laws are attempts to make society correct (or right), aren’t they?

I guess they weren’t so different after all : )

Much thanks to:

Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary where I got a lot of these definitions and histories. Honestly, it’s a great resource.

University of Texas at Austin, Indo-European Lexicon Pokorny Master PIE Etyma A great resource for that era.


  1. Oh, this was such fun to read! I never thought about that one word having three different meanings. And I agree, I'm glad lefties aren't looked down upon anymore, since my twins are lefties!

  2. I guess I watch a lot of old comedies, because I knew The Legend of Curly's Gold right away! (RIGHT away? Hmmm...)

    Very interesting post. Like Julie, I never thought about the word RIGHT having three meanings. But maybe that's because I'm a lefty.

  3. Oh City Slickers!!! One of my faves! :)

    I never put so much thought into the word right, but you are so right! lol (pun intended)

    I totally learned something from coming here. Awesome!

  4. I didn't realize how many puns this post would evoke:) Plus, I have a new one for the list: entrance and entrance.


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